Gumbo YaYa Y'all
February 21, 2022
In Louisiana, as Mardi Gras draws closer, we lean into our culture. We celebrate with family and friends. We build community with total strangers. You might say we dive headfirst into a boiling pot of Gumbo YaYa. We share stories of our lives and create meaning in both the telling and hearing of stories. It is how we are and who we are. But you don’t have to be from Louisiana or even in Louisiana to know Gumbo YaYa. As Urban Dictionary defines it (yeah, I’m going there…) it’s the sound of “several conversations blending together to create one sweet, awesome noise.” Right now, somewhere very near you, people are telling their story. They are sharing what they know and how they found out!
As a teacher I often wonder how to bring that beautiful messy spirit of engagement into the classroom.
How can we get our students to relate their lives to their learning and vice versa? How do we structure an intellectually rewarding environment that invites students into the center of the conversation? How do we ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and that the talk is productive and supports our learning goals? How do we leverage that “sweet, awesome noise” to help students achieve?
In Science in the City, Bryan A. Brown describes the familiar classroom scene of a teacher playing the educational equivalent of a game show called “Guess What’s in My Head?’ An all-knowing host asks select participants to call out correct answers while most people are relegated to the status of spectator. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all sat through it. Some of us were good at it and some of us were not. A lot of us were very bored as our curiosity ebbed. Worst of all, this approach cuts students off from their real resources. Their lived resources. It disadvantages every student by cutting learning off from personal story and unique ways of knowing. It obscures their thinking and disenfranchises experience. As Brown puts it “this type of discourse guarantees that only two types of people get an opportunity to speak: teachers themselves and the students who know the answers. This fundamentally ensures that those who need to discuss an idea in order to gain clarity never get an opportunity to express their understanding.”
How do we structure an intellectually rewarding environment that invites students into the center of the conversation?
Two instructional shifts that can help teachers overcome the barriers to sensemaking and improve class culture come right from the soul of Gumbo YaYa. First, we must reimagine what counts as knowledge in the classroom. We need to bring the outside in. We need to tap into a broader “fund of knowledge” than the textbook or the teacher’s brain. That is, we should make space for students to draw on family and community knowledge. Our classroom routines need to intentionally probe at how and what students know from their lived experience and from the experiences of their families. Student understandings are more visible to the teacher and the students. In science, this may be as simple as asking students to talk about related phenomena to bring new ideas and connections to the conversation.
“It’s kinda like…” or “One time I saw…” can be powerful steppingstones to a deeper understanding of topics. As Megan Bang puts it: “By attending closely to what students actually say and do… teachers can expand the relationships that are possible among themselves, their students, and science.”
Once students see that they too can participate in the generation of classroom ideas powerful feedback mechanisms take hold.
Once students see that they too can participate in the generation of classroom ideas powerful feedback mechanisms take hold. As students apply personal experience to learning, they invariably reflect on the limits of their understanding, and they are eager to fill in those gaps. As they listen to their peers and participate in classroom activities, students begin to see that what is interesting is what is not quite known. New observations which arise from new experiences and engaging with other points of view raise even more questions. Imagine a learning cycle designed to amplify curiosity!
To get there we must reimagine what classroom dialogue looks and feels like. At the end of the day, our students still need to understand key vocabulary and concepts. We need to ensure that our talk is moving students toward our learning goals. An important first step is establishing trust and norms. Sarah Michaels and Cathy O’Connor said, “students have to feel a sense that their ideas will be taken seriously and that disagreements will be handled respectfully, so that ideas- not individuals- are challenged.” In Talk Science Primer they outline a vision of academically productive talk. Every student is part of the conversation, talk is focused and rigorous, students are motivated to share, and the teacher serves as a guide to verbal collaboration. Michaels and O’Connor also offer one of the best sets of dialog tools anywhere. Their “Goals for Productive Discussions and Nine Talk Moves” is widely reprinted across disciplines and offers users a “call sheet” that facilitates meaningful dialog in the classroom and creates academic space for students to share ideas from inside the class and from their daily experience.
As students apply personal experience to learning, they invariably reflect on the limits of their understanding, and they are eager to fill in those gaps...Imagine a learning cycle designed to amplify curiosity!
This spring after the last parades have rolled and the last beads are swept from the streets, we need to keep that momentum going. We need to tap into the richness of our student’s lived experience by creating intentional spaces for dialog, by inviting the outside in and turning up the “sweet, awesome noise” of learning.
Bang, M., Brown, B., Calabrese Barton, A., Rosebery, A & Warren, B. (2017). Toward more equitable learning in science. Expanding relationships among students, teachers, and science practices. In C. Schwartz, C. Passmore, & B. J. Reiser, (Eds.), Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices. (pp. 205-228). NSTA Press.
Brown, Bryan A. (2019). Science in the city: Culturally relevant stem education. Harvard Education Press.
Learning in Places Collaborative. (2020). Framework: Culture, learning, and identity. Learning in Places.
Michaels, S., & O’Connor, C. (2012). Talk science primer. https://inquiryproject.terc.edu/shared/pd/TalkScience_Primer.pdf
Michaels, S., & O’Connor, C. (2017). From recitation to reasoning: Supporting scientific and engineering practices through talk. In C. V. Schwarz, C. M. Passmore, & B. J. Reiser (Eds.), Helping students make sense of the world through next generation science and engineering practices (pp. 311-336). NSTA Press.
Reiser, B. J., Novak, M., & McGill, T. A. W. (2017). Coherence from the students’ perspective: Why the vision of the Framework for K-12 science requires more than simply “combining” three dimensions of science learning. Paper commissioned for the Board on Science Education workshop “Instructional materials for the Next Generation Science Standards.” http://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/dbassesite/documents/webpage/dbasse_180270.pdf
Written by: Steven Babcock
Steven Babcock has taught science in and out of the classroom for 27 years, 16 of which have been in service to LSU University Laboratory School. Viewing his profession as a calling, Steve is passionate about ensuring all students have an exceptional learning experience and understand the context of their scientific studies in the real world. Babcock was selected 2020 Louisiana Science Teacher of the year and was a finalist for the 2021 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. An educator of educators, Steve previously served as Principal Investigator on Louisiana Coastal Fellowship Project (LSU Office of Sponsored Programs) through which he assisted teachers in the development of standards-based coastal curriculum, funded by Louisiana Department of Education. He is Teacher Leader Advisor for Louisiana Department of Education tasked with facilitating teacher trainings in secondary Physics instruction. Babcock was Presenter at the 2021 National Science Teachers Association Convention; Session Topic: Pathways to Engagement- Practical Strategies to build a more inclusive class culture.